The children’s story:
Oscar and Olivia: Family stories
Oscar and Olivia loved their Granny, and their Granny loved them. Olivia loved her Granny because she was two, and Granny had always been there. Oscar loved his Granny because he was ten, and she told him family stories. Some of them he had heard many times, even though Granny was told not to tell them.
“TOO gruesome for little kids,” scolded Oscar’s mum.
“Too GROWNUP for little kids,” scolded Oscar’s dad.
Granny only had one real eye. The other one was glass. She crinkled up her eyes and never said sorry. “I told them true stories about our family,” she said.
“There are LOTS of family stories that are about having fun and people being kind,” said Oscar’s mum.
“THEY aren’t much fun to tell,” said Granny. “And every story I told them was about us NOT having fun, but being kind ANYWAY.”
She told the stories she wanted to, and sometimes parts of them were very sad.
This is one of the stories she told.
When I was young I had the world on a string. I had two eyes, and two legs, and a wonderful boyfriend. We had fun all the time. I thought we’d have fun forever. One minute I was fine, and the next I was in hospital. I was in a car accident, and my boyfriend was driving and I lost my eye and my leg and my boyfriend. We were both in hospital at the same time, but when he woke up and learned how badly I was hurt he said he couldn’t love me any more.
This was always the part when Oscar said, “He was a jerk!”
This was always the part when Granny said, “That’s what I thought! Then I learned not to judge.”
I lay in my hospital bed and cried and cried. The therapist came in one day and she told me to do my exercises to get ready for my new leg. I told her I wanted my old leg back, and she said a horrible thing. She said it was burned and it wasn’t coming back, and my metal and plastic leg was the only one I was going to have.
Oscar said, “She was a jerk!”
Granny said, “That’s what I thought! Then I learned not to judge.”
I yelled at her and I said she was mean. She said, “If you’re going to get better, it’s better to be mad than sad. I’d rather you were mad at me than sad about your boyfriend. By the way, he’s working much harder than you at getting better.”
Granny said, “I was FURIOUS!”
This was the part of the story when Oscar and his Granny made ANGRY FACES. If Olivia was looking she would try to made angry faces too, which made everything stop because Granny and Oscar would laugh and laugh. Then Granny would say, Where was I? Oh yes, I was FURIOUS.
So I decided that even if it was by just one day, I would get out of the hospital faster than my boyfriend.
I worked really hard. It was painful, it was boring, it was lonely.
I went home on two legs before he did. I got used to everything, including not having a boyfriend, I went back to school, I lived my life, and my parents helped me, and my church helped me, and my friends helped me.
Then one day I ran into my old boyfriend. I thought I would hate him, and the strangest thing happened. I felt sorry for him. So instead of being angry, or turning away, I smiled at him and said hi.
He said, “You don’t hate me?”
I said, “It was an accident.”
He said, “No, that I said I didn’t want to be your boyfriend any more.”
I said, “I did, but I don’t any more.”
He said, “My parents made me say it.” Granny grinned and looked at Oscar.
Oscar said, “They were jerks!”
Granny said, “That’s what I thought! Then I learned not to judge.”
“I said, “Your parents want the best for you.”
“He said, “Then they won’t mind if you take me back. Will you take me back?”
I said, “Sure.” We got married and had two baby girls and one of those baby girls is your mother, who tells me not to tell you this story.
Oscar said, “She’s a jerk!”
And they both laughed and laughed, because Olivia said,
“Dat’s what I tot, den I learn not to judge.”
Good morning. My name is Allegra Sloman, and I’d like to thank you for joining me on this, the first Sunday of our journey into 2015. Today I’d like to speak on the subject of the arc of a life.
If we are fortunate enough to get our three score years and ten – the seventy years of a human life span according to the Bible verse Psalm 90 – we will have passed through many stages on our life’s journey, moving between the helplessness of an infant and the assurance and wisdom of an elder. I’d like you to consider, like the arc of an arrow shot into the air, the arc of a human life, subject to the laws of nature, and following – however tortuous a journey it may seem at the time – a logical and coherent progress and outcome. This progress is part of the life of our church.
Although as adults we are expected to be responsible for our own lives, the instructions for the bodies, which house our spirits and minds, are unknown to us. It seems very strange that we are admonished to take responsibility for what we don’t understand. Even now, if someone handed you a copy of your own genome – the DNA instructions that told your body how to grow and unfold in the womb, and which carry out the instructions for repair and healing even now – and you had the ability to meaningfully study it, it would be your life’s work to understand it. Much of that instruction set is conditional, and some of it is damaged or miscopied, and much of it seems nonsensical as yet, waiting for the brilliant minds of our researchers and scientists to be understood. Despite this lack of understanding, which in my view hobbles our ability to truly discern ourselves, the world and its people with compassion, over thousands of years, we’ve come up with an auxiliary instruction set called culture. In the last 500 years Unitarian Universalists have been refining this instruction set, and it is for reminders and continual improvements that we keep coming to church. In my talk I’m going to link the growth of a child into an adult and our UU culture – two sets of instructions, or possibly guidelines, in a practical way.
DNA turns new ways of being on and off, all through your life. It is a good thing, and a wonderful thing, but transformation is not without its hazards and pains. Our culture turns new ways of being on and off as well; think of the joy of the young driver with that new licence in her hand, and the bleak depression of the elder who now feels housebound after getting her drivers’ license taken away. The first terrors and taboos of menstruation transform into the self-assurance of the young woman, which gives way to the hormone bath of motherhood, and then the sadness or cheerful relief of menopause. On and off. On and off. We don’t talk much about it. You can say those things are private, and not fit for a church service, but custom and ceremony have always attended the liminal moments, the transitions of birth and adulthood and commitment to service, of events through which we transition from stage to stage in our journey.
Men are by no means spared the consequences of their hormonal switches; from the cracking voice and the terrors of the locker room, to the calm, constructive air of a householder, to the thinning hair and the getting up much in the night – we all know about it, and we don’t talk much about it. These are all normal things.
Where does that leave people who don’t follow the current societal norms of birth, growth, sexual expression, school, family?
Some of us choose not to bother with having our own families. Some are never given a choice. The DNA switches pulse in others; mothers who say how much more fun a trip to the zoo would be if there were grandchildren. Fathers who rewrite their wills so that the children without children of their own get less of an inheritance. For some, that switch pulses many times, as they create families, sometimes leaving the previous one behind, making their own warmth and light by defining and living in a family which doesn’t look anything like Mummy and Daddy in picture books for kids. The story I wrote for the children today was a comment on how every family looks different, and that there can be conflicts between the generations about which family stories need to be told. In the end it is what we say when we think the kids aren’t listening that makes the biggest impression. “Dat’s wat I tot, den I learn not to judge.”
Whatever our families looked like when we were growing up, let’s remember that a normative family experience can feel like a jail made of gender roles. Or a continual rebuke to a childless person. When we make a welcome to newcomers, young and old, let’s make no assumptions about what family looks like to them, but accept them where they are in their journey.
In the beginning, we were little fish – or looked like little fish – growing inside our mothers. Every one of us.
The wonderful condition of pregnancy is a physically, emotionally and culturally challenging condition for the mother. Biologically it is an unpredictable and unsubtle wrestling match between the contribution of the father, the resources of the mother, the sometimes life-threatening appetite of the growing child and its companion and gatekeeper, the placenta. When you think of what can go wrong, it is no wonder that the most cynical among us will refer to birth as a miracle.
As we acknowledge the miracle, we must admit there are seven billion of us, and there’s room for some skepticism, if not cynicism.
Throughout this talk when I reference our children, I’m talking about our congregational children, not as my badge of culturally blessed fertility. I think this is an important distinction to make. One of the best things about church is that it is where you can be in a multigenerational covenant as a choice and not a religiously mandated rule. BE FRUITFUL and MULTIPLY is a suggestion to those UUs who are interested, not a law.
In each stage of life, we have needs, and we bring gifts. A child is a gift in and of himself. He brings the future, the promise of a better world for us to work for, because he is in it, and the necessity for struggle and sacrifice comes with him. He needs to be loved, fed, tended and brought into an understanding of himself and his place in the world, educated, challenged, exercised and, once in a while, spoiled rotten.
Before he is even born, we may welcome him best by making sure the mother gets the best nourishment. A world of better people starts with better nourished fetuses. Somewhere in an imaginary Unitarian Universalist handbook, there is an invisible rule: it states, Feed People. Certainly you can fill them up with hymns and ideas and words, but any church that is more roses than soup needs an adjustment, and possibly a complete overhaul. Feed People is certainly the most practical thing you can do for a pregnant woman and the life she carries.
From birth to two years old, a child needs safety and the opportunity to develop physically and mentally. At this age our brains learn by doing, so our church, to truly be compassionate with all of our members, needs to follow another invisible rule: Make Safe Spaces for Exploration. This rule applies to everyone, but it is the smallest among us who bring this need to our attention, and so the gift that the littlest bring to us is that they need it now, not at some convenient time, to be discussed, when we can all get together.
From two until eight, a child needs to transform play into learning, and to develop a charitable and encouraging voice inside herself, for those times when no one is helping. She needs to be coached through getting up again when knocked down and that perseverance is the ground all success grows from; she learns about making friends and understanding what friendship is and isn’t; starts on what is hopefully a lifetime of compassionate self-care; develops both judgement and taste usually through an amount of repetition which drives her caregivers around the bend; and learns the traditions and foibles of her family. And if by the age of eight a child can see that she belongs to a larger family of all human beings, then we perhaps have done part of our job, to instill another invisible Rule: You are a Moral Being. When we think of their gifts, kids this age bring questions. Lots and lots of questions.
From eight until puberty, a child needs to develop that moral sense, and that includes learning about responsibility for one’s own body. The best way is by example, and there’s no substitute for it. UUs embrace the challenge of providing a moral and spiritual education for our young people as one of our most cherished responsibilities. We want them to be whole in spirit and sound in body, and we have spent time, talent and treasure to bring our children curriculum about moral questions and sexuality. I’m specifically referencing the Our Whole Lives curriculum, which is not running at Beacon currently, but may again in the future.
It’s crucial to their lives, as our children will live them, that they don’t have to leave any part of themselves at the church door. We care enough to teach our kids about their bodies in a safe space, using trained volunteers who have undergone RCMP background checks. The age-appropriate curriculum is not trivial. It’s based on sound science.
In a pornography saturated world it is part of our job to keep the sacred in sexuality and to have the courage to proclaim it the birthright of children everywhere to come to knowledge of their own sexuality with facts, love, humour and acceptance. We have as a denomination chosen to covenant together that this is an important value for us, a defining value, an invisible rule: We Shall Embody Love. For when we teach our transgender and gay and asexual kids, alongside our straight and lesbian and bisexual kids, some of whom may also be intersex, we are most definitely Embodying Love. The gift this part of the human journey brings to us is clear – Nature Doesn’t Wait. We must have the hard conversations about the challenging subjects, whether it’s sexuality, evil, death, loss or disaster, when the moment comes, always knowing that moment is unfolding. The time to talk to a young lesbian about consent is not when she’s eighteen. It’s when she’s eleven, or even younger. We may be angry with life for forcing the conversation, but not with the child who needs the wisdom and resources to face the real life she’s going to live.
Through adolescence and young adulthood, the brain goes through a complete rewiring. This is a good thing, resulting in a brain with better executive functions and more efficient operation. It’s also the time in life when our members choose careers, go to school, perhaps travel independently for the first time, choose partners and in general live a crowded and interesting life. Up until this point in your life everything has been set out for you and you have had few real choices; now you choose your friends and your destination. The need they bring to us is a hard one, and it is a grief to many of us – they remind us to Take Our Light Out Into The World. We think when young UUs leave us that they’ve impoverished our church. They are truly taking our values, our dreams, our words, our visions, our plans, our highest aspirations for ourselves and the world where they can make light for others. The gift young adults bring is hope.
And then, darn, one day you wake up and you’re a grownup. You have responsibilities and tasks and people who depend on you. It crept up on you. And you’ll spend almost half your life like this, if you’re lucky. Or perhaps you managed to avoid all of the householder role and you are a free spirit, a creator, an artist, a traveller, a wanderer. Either way, this is the time in your life when you feel like a draft horse, because you are at the height of your powers, personally, financially, creatively – and you’re still good looking – and there’s always somebody looking for more out of you still. Somebody wants your time, your money, your love, your car, your insurance plan, your pledge, your estimate, your budget, your participation, your comments by Friday latest, your lovingly cooked breakfast, your grudgingly cooked dinner, your grass cutting and tree planting and mending and help with the computer. You will spend a long time not being who you are, but what you can do for other people, men and women alike, and sometimes it’s more than any of us can bear. The gift we bring is the work we can do, and whether it goes well or badly depends on one very, very important invisible rule. If you’re going to be a draft horse, CHOOSE YOUR YOKEMATES CAREFULLY. There cannot be joy in all work, but I can tell you from the fullness of my heart and the depth of my experience that if you are pulling in the right direction with the right people, you will have not only some joy in the work but much joy in the recollection. People this age need to be reminded that they are not alone; the better they’ve chosen their team mates, the less they need to be reminded.
And when we get to the end of a UU life, full of needs and gifts, we are lucky, and we are old. What do our old people need? To be seen! To participate in the all-ages pageant that is church life; to serve as an example of what a well-lived life looks like so it comes as no surprise to the rest of us. What gift do they bring? The reminder that hard times don’t last, and can’t last if we stick together. Think of Denis here. I never saw a man more like a lily of the field, and he’s 92! We don’t talk about what Denis was like in his time…. he embodies our last invisible rule for this morning, that no matter what the clock says, It’s Always Now.
Our church is best when it thinks about all of its members, wherever they are in the journey of their lives, thinking of their needs in a spirit of loving service, and receiving their gifts with the gratitude and the grace we can muster.
So mote it be on your Journey, blessed be!